Just in case you thought Dick Cheney’s culpability for environmental destruction was limited to offshore drilling and the Gulf oil spill, here is Watergate II. Only this time, it’s literally about water, specifically how Dick Cheney and Halliburton poisoned our drinking water.
Gasland, a documentary about the hidden dangers of the Halliburton-developed drilling technology of “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, debuts tonight on HBO. Taking a deeper look into fracking, we see another terrifying story of deregulation gone wrong. And guess who is behind it? Yeah, you guessed it. Dick Cheney, George W Bush, and America-hating Halliburton all make an appearance in this story.
Playwright and now documentarian Josh Fox and his family were offered 100,000 dollars plus royalties in exchange for the right to mine for natural gas on their land on the border of New York and Pennsylvania, on the Upper Delaware River Basin. It seemed harmless enough, according to the gas company, but Fox wanted to do some research before the family agreed to leasing their 19.5 acres.
Fox took his camera and started interviewing other people around the country who had leased their land for natural gas drilling, and the things he learned more than justified his reticence. The result is Gasland, a documentary film that won the jury prize at Sundance this year and premieres on HBO tonight at 9PM.
The gas company wanted to use the Halliburton-developed technology of hydraulic fracturing, which is a process of injecting a huge volume of water — they use between 2 and 7 million gallons of water per frack to fracture the rock formation. It seemed safe enough, as the gas company told Fox he wouldn’t even know they were there…. However, there’ve been two major accidents in the Pennsylvania-West Virginia region this month alone involving “fracking”, one of which involved a well explosion.
What no one told Fox is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not regulate the injection of fracturing fluids under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The oil and gas industry is the only industry in America that is allowed by EPA to inject known hazardous materials — unchecked — directly into or adjacent to underground drinking water supplies. How is this possible? The federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
“This exemption from the SDWA has become known as the “Halliburton loophole” because it is widely perceived to have come about as a result of the efforts of Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force. Before taking office, Cheney was CEO of Halliburton — which patented hydraulic fracturing in the 1940s, and remains one of the three largest manufacturers of fracturing fluids. Halliburton staff were actively involved in review of the 2004 EPA report on hydraulic fracturing.”
Earthworks lays out the regulation history of hydraulic fracturing:
“In 1997, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit (Atlanta) ordered the EPA to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act. This decision followed a 1989 CBM fracturing operation in Alabama that landowners say contaminated a residential water well.
In 2000, in response to the 1997 court decision, the EPA initiated a study of the threats to water supplies associated with the fracturing of coal seams for methane production. The primary goal of the study was to assess the potential for fracturing to contaminate underground drinking water supplies.
Meanwhile, in 2001, a special task force on energy policy convened by Vice President Dick Cheney recommended that Congress exempt hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
Oh, Dick. Again? Apparently, yes, as it passed as part of the Bush Administration’s Energy Policy Act of 2005.
In 2009, Senators Casey (D-PA) and Schumer (D-NY), and Representatives DeGette (D-CO), Polis (D-CO) and Hinchey (D-NY) introduced bills in the Senate and House to close the so-called “Halliburton Loophole”, the Fracking Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act which is STILL pending. In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the commencement of the Hinchey Study, an investigation into the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. Currently, the oil and gas industry is the only industry exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Last year, U.S. Rep. DeGette, Vice Chair of the Committee on Energy and Commerce said, “Our bill simply closes an unconscionable Bush-Cheney loophole by requiring the oil and gas industry to follow the same rules as everyone else.” Rep. Polis said, “It is irresponsible to stand by while innocent people are getting sick because of an industry exemption that Dick Cheney snuck in to our nation’s energy policy.” Rep. Hinchey added, “It’s time to fix an unfortunate chapter in the Bush administration’s energy policy and close the ‘Halliburton loophole’ that has enabled energy companies to pump enormous amounts of toxins, such as benzene and toluene, into the ground that then jeopardize the quality of our drinking water.”
In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Fox relates that the gas company told Fox and his family that the drilling would have very little impact on their land, “‘We don’t even know if there’s gas here. It’s going to be a fire hydrant in the middle of a field — very little impact to your land. You won’t hardly know we’re here.”
However, in his interviewing process, Fox met with people whose water was poisoned — water with natural gas and heavy metals in water (associated with drilling), sick people, and landscape dotted with gas well pads, along with heavy truck traffic.
NPR further reports:
“Fox explains the process of unconventional gas drilling — the technique used by mining companies to obtain natural gas — as well as why he believes there is continued cause for concern.
For example, some homeowners he spoke to noticed that their water had been discolored or was starting to bubble. And in some communities, people were able to light the water coming out of their faucets on fire — because chemicals from the natural gas drilling process had seeped into the water.
“I did it myself,” he says. “That’s one of the most dramatic and spectacular things in the film. It just turns your whole world upside down when you can turn the faucet on and stick a cigarette lighter under it and you get this explosion of flame.””
Reuters reported the industry’s rebuttal:
“The gas industry disputes the film’s findings, saying for example that methane migration that allows water to catch fire can occur naturally. This filmmaker, while well-intentioned, is getting a lot of attention but he’s not qualified at all to be an authority on this issue,” said Jim Smith, a spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association in New York, an industry group.”
While Fox is not an expert, and his findings are not scientific, what is not up for debate is the fact that the oil and gas industry is currently exempt from clean water regulations. The most logical question one can pose is if they aren’t doing anything to the water, why are they exempt from regulations? Once again, we find another example of Dick Cheney and Halliburton lurking behind more deregulation that poses a health risk to the American people and endangers our natural resources.
What exactly will it take to protect this nation from the legacy of Dick Cheney’s irresponsible deregulation? Everywhere we turn, we’re saddled with the potentially disastrous consequences of Cheney’s tsunami of massive and reckless special interest deregulation, whose sole motivation still appears to be the enrichment of the former vice president’s personal financial interests.
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Ms. Jones is the co-founder/ editor-in-chief of PoliticusUSA and a member of the White House press pool.
Sarah hosts Politicus News and co-hosts Politicus Radio. Her analysis has been featured on several national radio, television news programs and talk shows, and print outlets including Stateside with David Shuster, as well as The Washington Post, The Atlantic Wire, CNN, MSNBC, The Week, The Hollywood Reporter, and more.
Sarah is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.